Tag Archives: Northern Ireland

British Union and Devolution in Northern Ireland

Police respond to protests in East Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Police respond to protests in East Belfast, Northern Ireland.

About 100 loyalists attacked police officers in East Belfast last week, using bricks, bottles and fireworks as part of a broader (nonviolent) protest against the decision of City Hall to fly the union flag on certain days. One person was arrested on charges of attempted murder after shots were fired at police. Police closed off certain areas of the city and responded to protesters with water cannons.

The protests mark a reversal in the progress towards peace in Northern Ireland. Following protracted negotiations between loyalists (those who want to remain part of the United Kingdom) and unionists (those who want independence for Northern Ireland), the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998. The agreement established the Northern Ireland Assembly, which ensured representation for key political groups using an electoral system that encompasses both proportional representation and single-transferrable vote elements.

Recall that proportional representation provides seats in the legislature in relation to the portion of the national vote a party receives. Thus, if a party receives 20 percent of the popular vote, it is entitled to 20 percent of the seats in the legislature. Single-transferable vote requires voters to rank-choice their preferences, so that if no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast, the votes earned by the lowest ranked candidate are redistributed to the voter’s second choice, and so on, until a candidate receives an absolute majority. Both systems are intended to promote inclusion of minority voices in the parliament.

The establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly was also part of a broader political agenda of devolution, or the dissemination of power from the national government to regional and local governments. The most well-known example of devolution is the Scottish Parliament, established in 1998, which has successfully governed Scotland under the terms established by the British government since then. In Northern Ireland, devolution was been more problematic, and the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended on several occasions as a result of political instability and violence.

The devolution of political authority to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland has raised interesting questions in British politics. Perhaps the most interesting is known as the West Lothian question (sometimes also called the England Question). The West Lothian question is the result of the devolution of political authority in the United Kingdom. National legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland were established to deal with domestic affairs in those countries, while the (national) British Parliament in London continues to deal with key areas of reserved powers (such as national defense and currency) as well as issues of local interest to England. But while all countries are represented in the national parliament in London, regional parliaments have no national representation. Thus, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish members of parliament vote on domestic English issues, while English MPs do not vote on Scottish, Welsh, or Irish domestic issues. Many English MPs view this as fundamentally unfair, and the British government recently established a panel (the Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons) to investigate the question and report back this year.

What do you think? Is devolution politically problematic in the United Kingdom? Is it unfair? And how is it related to recent developments in Northern Ireland? Take the poll or leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

Poor economic news continues to flow out of most of the world. In the United States, new jobless figures released last week show unemployment up to 8.1 percent, the highest rate in 25 years. Malaysian exports have collapsed, placing pressure on the government to find a solution to the ongoing crisis. And the banking sector in South Africa, Canada, and Mexico (among others) continues to face problems, and the International Monetary Fund is urging greater coordination to address the crisis. 

But the Chinese government is asserting that things are improving there already, forecasting 8 percent growth this year and denying the economy is in a downturn. If they’re correct, perhaps we’re starting to see the beginning of the end of the global economic crisis. I, however, remain cautious.

Here’s important five stories from the previous week:

1. Hillary Clinton continued her charm offensive in Europe last week. After shifting to a more diplomatic strategy with Syria, the new Obama administration has announced its intention to conclude a new arms control agreement with Russia by the end of the year. The effort to improve diplomatic relations with both Syria and Russia are seen as part of a wider effort by the Obama administration to distance itself from the hardline policies of the previous president.

2. A suicide bomb attack against Baghdad’s main police academy killed 28 people on Sunday. Although the number of attacks has declined since the height of the sectarian violence in 2003, the attack nevertheless illustrates the challenges that Iraq continues to face.  On Thursday, a car bomb attack in Babil province—a region that has enjoyed relative peace for months—killed 12 people and injured 40. 

3.  Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on Saturday announced his intention to resign. Fayyad was appointed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. But Fayyad was a controversial figure, and Hamas regularly criticized Fayyad for being too closely aligned with the United States and Israel. Fayyad’s resignation is seen as an important step towards the development of a unity government for Palestine, which itself is viewed as an important first step in the Middle East peace process.

4. The Good Friday peace accord in Northern Ireland faces its most serious challenge since it was signed in 1998, after two British soldiers were killed Saturday night in an attack by Irish nationalist groups opposed to the agreement. Though no group has yet claimed responsibility, several groups, including the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA, and the Irish National Liberation Army, oppose Sinn Fein’s effort to develop a powersharing agreement and peace deal for Northern Ireland.

5. Last week, President Hugo Chávez stepped up his effort to nationalize foreign agricultural producers in Venezuela. After last month’s referendum, which granted Chávez the right to remain in office indefinitely, Chávez announced his intention to move forward with the nationalization of key industries, including oil, steel, and cement. Chávez accuses foreign agricultural producers of exacerbating the country’s economic problems.

And in a bonus story for this week:

6. Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai was injured in a car accident on Saturday, and Susan Tsvangirai, his wife of 31 years, was killed. According to witnesses, a truck swerved from the oncoming lane and struck his car, the middle in a convoy of three cars, head on. Some within Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change have accused Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe, of masterminding the attack in an effort to eliminate his political rival. Although Tsvangirai has since said he did not believe the accident was part of a broader plot by Mugabe to eliminate him, Tsvangirai did accept an offer from Botswana’s President to recouperate across the border, fueling speculation about the nature of the accident. Zimbabwe’s national unity government remains an unstable coalition of rival groups, and the government has been unable to effectively address the ongoing economic crisis there.